One of China's leading industrial designers has some simple advice for Chinese companies that want to follow Western and Japanese counterparts and build their own brands: Go slowly.
Product design and brand building is a very new discipline in China - the country's consumer market is really less than 30 years old, emerging only since the Cultural Revolution - and firms should proceed cautiously as the concept is less ingrained for both companies and consumers.
At least that's the word from Zhou Yi, who founded one of China's first industrial design consultancies, s.point design, in Shanghai in 1997.
The 38-year-old Yi, who does about 70 percent of his work with multinational firms, said Chinese consumers are not as brand-loyal as North Americans or Europeans, which he calls the ``butterfly effect'' of flitting from product to product.
China only started importing branding and product-design techniques 25 years ago, he said.
``In the U.S., when someone is a child they start drinking Coca-Cola,'' he said. ``But in China a lot of people, they don't know Coca-Cola from local cola. How can you expect people to just focus on, `I drink Coca-Cola?' ''
Zhou gave a speech at the Business of Design Week conference, held in Hong Kong from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2, and spoke in an interview on the sidelines of the event.
Brand building is a big topic in China, he said, as both foreign and local firms fight for share in its giant consumer market. Foreign firms do not always appreciate the complexity of China, approaching him with advice on how to design something like a mobile phone for the ``China market,'' he said.
But there's no one-size-fits-all approach, because China is a country with more than 50 different cultures, wide disparity between rich and poor and strong regional and linguistic differences. Firms should settle for a small chunk of China, he said.
Plus, he said, Chinese consumers sometimes have very different aesthetic tastes, such as preferring gold colors or a stone or jade feel on products.
For their part, he said, Chinese companies approach him with ideas for developing brands, but don't always have a clear sense of what they want to do. ``They don't really have a good brand image or understanding, or make good strategy.''
He advises them just to pick one product, as he has done with one of China's biggest television makers, Sichuan Changhong, and with appliance maker Shandong Joyoung Electric Appliance Co. Ltd., so they don't risk as much.
For Joyoung, s.point helped develop an electric bean juice machine. Since it's closely tied to Chinese culture, he said it has a better chance of getting noticed than if the company tried to make another coffee machine, for example.
For Changhong, Zhou showed off a television design with rounded lines - often favored by Chinese - and vibrant red side and back panels, to try to make ``some noise'' in the market.
It will be harder for Chinese companies to make a brand name in something like electronics, though, because those products can't reflect Chinese culture as much, he said.
``If we design another very elegant, very clean TV, like Sony, we have no chance,'' he said.
For that reason, Zhou predicts that China's first strong global brand is more likely to come out of architecture, furniture or interior design, where Chinese culture can show through. Still, he thinks it could take another generation, 10 or 15 years, for that to happen.
Zhou, whose 30-person consultancy works with firms like Nike, Motorola and Procter & Gamble Co., said brand building is a lot more complicated than just saying you want to do it.
``For branding you should really have patience and always keep your focus on innovation,'' he said.
``Twenty years for a brand is nothing.''